A SERMON FOR THE END OF TERM
Given by The Revd Catherine Dixon on 5th March 2015
I stand before you this evening wearing many hats.
Former student, current student, Trustee. Cornish exile, on our patronal feast of St Piran. Person on Cindy’s speed-dial who she could call on from her sickbed to preach at two-days notice. (She’s marking my MA). The particular hat I want to focus on for a moment is that of keeper of the Wesley House twitter account.
Those of you less familiar with the world of social media – facebook, twitter and so on – may not know that things (ideas, pictures, events) can trend (briefly peaking in popularity) or become memes – that is a concept that spreads and becomes a shared idea, image or catchphrase across the internet with a life of its own. One such meme is the question widely asked “what would Jesus do?”, it has grown from its roots in the youth movement of American evangelical churches, where the question was embossed on bracelets and other paraphernalia as a reminder of the moral imperative to act in a manner that demonstrates the love of Jesus. An entirely commendable thing.
But not one that is uncomplicated as it might seem.
The Australian comedy group Axis of Awesome (great name) recorded a song that reminds us that most of what Jesus can do, we simply cannot do ourselves. If the wine runs out at dinner this evening, we assume the Principal will not say ‘what would Jesus do?’ then bless the water glasses and resolve the situation. More seriously, when I make my visits to the hospital in King’s Lynn tomorrow afternoon, I cannot do what Jesus might do in the same situation.
And surely the key word there is might. In asking the question what would Jesus do? we surely presume to know the mind of Christ. We reduce Jesus to the range of possibilities that we can imagine, we make him see with limited human vision, rather than allowing the possibilities that the divine vision brings.
And we can easily make Jesus small and sentimental, like those Sunday School pictures of old, gentle Jesus meek and mild, with his fluffy lamb and a blonde haired, blue eyed child on his knee (matching his own blonde hair and blue eyes in those pictures). Whenever I hear the question what would Jesus do? I want to shout out that among the range of options he might turn the tables over, make a whip from cords and drive people from his temple, as the Gospel for this coming Sunday reminds us.
And we may be among those turning his Father’s house into something it is not, idolators making him in our own image. And we might be driven from his courts.
Because to ask, what would Jesus do? suggests that we can answer that question. And the answer will probably sound very much like we want it to hear. Our Jesus is surely bookish, scholarly, a stickler for grammar, a vegetarian, a lover of dogs (the small fluffy kind you wouldn’t have in 1st century Palestine), a fan of Doctor Who. Or maybe that’s just my Jesus. Our Jesus will defend our causes, of course. We know how our Jesus would vote at Methodist Conference.
I think perhaps we need to reframe the question. Not what would but what did Jesus do? One thing he did do was say, in the words of our Gospel this evening, “get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things”.
However well intentioned we may be, however much we want to claim Jesus for our personal crusades, whatever they may be, we must take seriously his tough words as Peter failed to do on that occasion, to recognise when we are projecting ourselves onto him, and to hold those hard sayings together with hold the love and compassion and those things we find more comfortable.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Today we are offered the example of one such faithful follower in St Piran, and what a gift that is to a Cornish patriot. I will spare you the hours waxing lyrical about the land of the saints and all the glories of Cornwall, as only those of us in exile can.
Piran, a 6th century abbot, took up not a cross but a millstone onto which he was tied by the heathen Irish and rolled off a cliff into a raging sea. The sea at once was calm and he floated to Cornwall and washed up on the beach at Perranzabuloe where he built his church.
Today in Methodism we struggle with presbyters who feel that submitting to the discipline of itinerancy does not extend to the Celtic fringes. It’s too far, they cry.
How much more remarkable then is the faithfulness of Piran and the Cornish Saints who, in the fifth and six centuries made the difficult, treacherous, often one-way journey to the wild, pagan land of Cornwall from Wales and Ireland and Brittany and laboured for the kingdom to bring the light of the gospel to that remotest shore of our island. Perhaps I would not be standing here today if they had not. In words we shall sing later, they trusted in One who entrusted to them the disciples of tomorrow.
Piran and the Cornish Saints did not reduce their lives of faith to asking the question what would Jesus do? They understood more deeply his words and his call and embodied it in all their living, and their legacy remains in the land of the saints. We call Cornwall that not because, not just because, of a love of the land, but because everywhere you go through Cornwall places are named for so many, many saints. It is a land named for saints, who took up their cross and gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
And I know now I am beginning to sound almost as sentimental and soft-focused as those Sunday School pictures of old. And to say be like the Cornish saints is possibly about as helpful as asking what would Jesus do?
But the answer to the challenge our Gospel text presents is not simple. It cannot be summed up with a neat catchphrase. It cannot be branded on a bracelet or a tee-shirt, or merchandised to the masses. It is not an opt in or out answer to an occasional question. It is not an add-on to our already full lives, another possibility among a cacophony of voices.
It is the stuff of a lifetime of attention, of prayer, of sacrifice.
Of looking beyond the surface – of others, of ourselves, of the God revealed in Jesus. Of directing our attention from human things to divine things.
What did Jesus do? He lived by his words. He did not ask of us anything more than he gave of himself. He walked the road before us. He showed what it is to empty oneself and to be filled anew. He inhabited our human frame; he had an intimate knowledge of all our faults and frailties and temptations; and even in his final moments of agony and pain he offered forgiveness.
Forgiveness that is held out to us for our idolatry in making him who he is not and failing to see and hear him as he is.
Let us reframe the question one more time.
Not what would Jesus do?
Or even what did Jesus do?
But what will we do?
What will we do as we hear his hard words? As the Lentern road still stretches before us As we prepare to travel with him from the heights to the depths of Holy Week.
What will we do? Will we look forward to Easter and glorious times ahead when we can leave these tough Lentern readings behind us?
What will we do? Will we resist the temptation to make Jesus small and in our image, answering our questions in ways that suit us? Or will we open up our lives to the enormous truth of God revealed in Jesus? Will we give ourselves in love to claim all that he offers? Give our lives that we might gain them back in all fullness?
What will we do? Will we take responsibility for our lives, our choices? Will we trust in One who entrusts to us the disciples of tomorrow?